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A Faithful Presence

James Davison Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
A Faithful Presence

James Hunter, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and author of some of the most influential sociological analyses of the last two decades, has written what may be his most important book yet. World is set out in three parts, or “essays” as he calls them because they were originally conceived as three separate entities. The first essay is the most controversial as he takes on the idea, espoused by Chuck Colson and others, that the changing of individual minds in sufficient numbers will change the culture those minds inhabit. This view is the logical extension of an idea that culture is best defined as the values people espouse in their hearts and minds. In eleven propositions, Hunter challenges both those presuppositions, held by Christians of all sorts—evangelical, progressive, liberal, conservative, though his strongest critique is of the evangelical wing of the church.

In his second essay, “Rethinking Power”, Hunter does a masterful job of demonstrating the all-too-true fact that, when evangelicals think of change, they almost always think in political terms. The pride and arrogance this produces come in for strong condemnation in separate chapters devoted to the Christian right, the Christian left and the Neo-Anabaptists. The concluding chapter of this essay, “Rethinking Power: Theological Reflections” alone is worth the price of the book.

In the book’s concluding essay, Hunter provides his thoughts about proceeding toward a “New City Commons”. The distinctive phrase here is “faithful presence”; Christians are called in community to practice “a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis” toward the world in which we live, but to do so by establishing “dense networks” of faithful people who work to honor God, not to change the world. As he puts it, “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.” (p. 234, emphasis his). Of course this does not cancel out a call to political or social action, it simply re-orders it, giving such activity its proper place in the grammar of obedience.

It is hard for me to think of a better book for the leadership of a study center to read and re-read than this one. Hunter has provided the theological and sociological basis for what most study centers hope to do as part of their university communities: be a faithful presence for Christ and his kingdom in the most influential community in America, honoring God with their work in the process.

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